Your first job interview since you were fired is going well. You're just starting to feel good when, suddenly, you get the question you've been dreading: Why did you leave your last job?
For workers who were laid off or fired, this isn't always an easy question to answer. After all, losing your job can bring about overwhelming feelings of anger and shame. How much should you reveal? Will the interviewer look down on you?
John Roccia, an interview coach at Ama La Vida, urges job seekers to stay strong. "People are afraid of this question, but millions upon millions of Americans have been terminated, laid off, let go, fired," he says. "It's happened to me. It's probably happened to almost everybody that's interviewing you at some point."
With that in mind, here are some tips on how to address a firing in your job interview.
7 pieces of advice for addressing a firing in a job interview
Roccia says that interviewers who ask why you left your previous job aren't attempting a 'gotcha!' question — they're trying to get at something more important.
"A hiring manager isn't really that concerned with your past behavior, except that it's a predictor of your future behavior," Roccia says. "They want to know, what is it going to be like when they work with you?"
Knowing the question shouldn't be perceived as a threat, here's how you can answer it masterfully.
1. Be prepared
Anyone fired from their previous job should take a moment to work out the story of their firing.
Roccia recommends starting this process by writing down the facts of the firing as if it happened to someone else. "You can review those facts a little more objectively," he says, and after getting feedback from trusted friends and family, replace the third-party name with your own and "you'll have something that you're much more comfortable telling."
2. Never lie
There's never a good reason to lie about your previous job. Lies about your departure, even small ones, can come back to haunt you. Even if the lie were initially successful, what if the truth were discovered three months after starting your new job? That could be disastrous.
3. Don't talk trash about your old boss
Certified career coach Gia Storms tells clients to be honest without giving too much detail. "With this type of question, employers are really trying to judge your character," she says. "They're trying to see if you take this opportunity to say nasty things about your former boss — or take the high road."
4. Take responsibility for your mistakes
If you were at fault in your firing, own it. Never shirk responsibility.
Roccia says he once had a client who took a swing at his boss. "Knuckles to jaw," he says. "Knocked him all the way out."
Even in worst case scenarios, owning your bad behavior is the best way to go. "If there was some legitimate piece of misconduct, the worst thing you can do is start to lay out excuses," Roccia says.
Instead, you should admit to your mistakes, explain that your emotions got the better of you, and share the steps you've taken to ensure that the offending incident will never happen again. The steps should be proportionate to the offending behavior, and most importantly, you must have actually followed through with the plan.
"If you got fired for stealing, you really have to take that long, hard look in the mirror and figure out what led to those changes. If not, it is going to weigh you down," Roccia says. "Everybody can be rehabilitated, everybody can move on, but it's all about that ownership."
5. Focus on the future
Make your interview as future-oriented as possible, including the story about your firing.
"If everything you talk about in an interview is framed in that way, always stepping forward, always chasing something greater, not running away from something worse," Roccia says, "the question of whether or not you get fired is rarely even going to come up. They're going to be so excited to work with you."
You can pivot the question by saying, "I was let go from my previous company for [insert reason here]. While I was initially disappointed, that quickly gave way to excitement about the opportunity to move in a new direction."
6. Watch out for tough follow-up questions
Even if you knock the initial question out of the park, the interviewer's follow-up could throw you for a loop.
For example, Roccia says, after you explain why you parted ways with your previous employer, an interviewer might ask, "If I called your manager, is that what she would tell me?"
The question is designed to catch you off guard. Again, the best answer is an honest one. Say something like, "I think she would tell you that she was extremely proud of the work that I did and thought I was a phenomenal employee. And honestly, I think she'd tell you she was disappointed in this one mistake I made, but now, she'd be very proud to hear how well I've recovered and retrained myself."
7. Don't sweat it
Ultimately, no one wants to see you fail. Even if you were fired for regretful reasons, you can make a comeback.
"People are eager to see your rehabilitation story, and they want to believe that you're working for it, that you're earning it," Roccia says.
"No matter what you've done, no matter how bad the mistake is, you can turn it around as long as you are sincere, you take radical ownership of it and you communicate that."